On Israel, Identity, Pride and “Exile”
By Rabbi David
The display hall at the 2020 AIPAC (America-Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference was a wow. A massive convention center, over 700,000 square feet, filled with exhibitions about Israel’s advances in environmental protection, health, social policy, education, information technology and national defense.
What other nation, I wondered, could proudly display such great contributions to humanity in vast disproportion to national size and population? What other nation could have the chutzpah to display advances in life-saving surgeries right next to its missile-intercept technology and other military wares?
And what other nation could so claim my ancestral pride, hope, yearning, longing, worry and pain? What nation could rouse me to care and wrestle so much from so far away?
I am the son of an Israeli-become-American. Even more, I am a son of Israel. Though an American and a public officer sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York, I also am a son of Israel – because I am a Jew.
Israel’s daughters and sons today encircle the globe. As Jews turn our bodies and hearts toward Jerusalem in prayer, we especially turn toward Israel this week of Yom Ha’Atzmaut – Israel’s 72nd Independence Day.
Which begs a few questions: Where is our “home”? Are we in “exile” from Israel?
The ancestral idea of galut (exile) is over 2,000 years old. Even as our spiritual ancestors were exiled from Israel, they kept alive – for 20 centuries! – the hope (“Hatikvah”) that Israel always would be their home and that they or their descendants would return.
And they did. With little besides grit, Israel’s pioneers built one of the world’s most vibrant nations. Israel remains the Mideast’s only democracy, the world’s only Hebrew-speaking society, an astounding innovation hub for modern technology, medicine and agriculture – all infused with Judaism’s spiritual treasures.
To this day, Israel’s Law of Return gives every Jew a right to re-settle in Israel. Even now, Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, frames in the future tense the hope that Lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, Eretz Tziyon v’Yerushalayim: “We will be a free people in our land: the Land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
“Will be”?! Aren’t Israelis now a free people in their land? Aren’t we? Who are “we” relative to “them”? These questions are vital, especially now, and many answers are possible.
One is that until all Jews return to Israel, “we” are not all together. In this sense, Jews living chutz la’aretz (outside the Land) are not fully “home” but rather in galut (exile).
The New Yorker in me bristles. I may be a son of Israel, but I am not Israeli. I do not hold an Israeli passport. I do not claim the rights or responsibilities of Israeli citizenship. Nor do I feel “exiled” as a New Yorker!
But there’s still truth to the ancestral idea. On Jerusalem’s streets, feeling the Holy City exhale for Shabbat like nowhere else, or amidst the buzz and 24/7 miracle that is Tel Aviv, I feel at home in a unique way. I have a stake in Israel; so do you. Even if we Americans aren’t literally in galut (exile) from Israel, in Israel we’re still “home” as nowhere else.
Another answer, then, is that Israel’s daughters and sons living chutz la’aretz (outside the land) aren’t in galut (exile) but rather we’re tefutzot (scattered). As we’re learning now in very embodied ways, there is great power and meaning in togetherness that can’t be fully realized when we’re physically scattered – even if we might thrive exactly where we are. The New Yorker in me embraces this understanding of our Israel connections, too.
A third answer re-imagines Zionism. Hatikvah still can speak in the future tense 72 years after Israel’s independence because Zionism is far more than physical being in a place. Real Zionism, taught R. Bonna Devorah Haberman z”l (one of the Women of the Wall), is about deepening into the land and its existential commitment to social justice. Zionism, in this sense, is an enlightened way of life that we haven’t yet fully attained.
I resonate with this answer also. Israel holds herself to a high standard that sometimes she does not fully meet – that maybe no nation in the Mideast’s dangerous neighborhood ever could meet. We may well hold Israel to an impossibly high standard: we feel in our guts when injustice touches the Land of Promise.
All of that, too, is quintessentially Jewish and Zionist. One of the many ways we know that we love Israel is when we care about her geopolitical suffering on all sides – when Israeli families suffer, when Palestinian families suffer, when Druze or Bedouin families suffer.
To love Israel isn’t to turn a blind eye to anyone’s suffering, or pretend simplicity from complexity. To love Israel is to have a stake in the prophetic call to do justice in and for the Land of Israel and the land where we make our homes as Jews. To love Israel is to let ourselves feel the incredible fullness of all that Israel is, and all that Israel yet can be. To love Israel is to align ourselves, body and heart, to a living hope for that Land of Promise.
Our ancestors made miracles happen. We can use a few now. We too can invoke the chutzpah and communal can-do spirit that made Israel’s deserts bloom, that absorbed immigrants, that defied incredible odds and still does. We are daughters and sons of Israel – and with the prophetic call echoing in our souls, we stand proud together.
Past corona-themed spiritual messages from Rabbi David:
Week 2: The spirituality of melting down
Week 3: The liberation journey when so little feels like freedom
Week 4: How can we celebrate? How can’t we?
Week 5: Countdown to what’s next
Week 6: On spiritual resilience